By His Highness Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz

image

First published on July 25, 2014, Friday

It was Malam 20 Ramadan, on which by the provisions of an 1898 Agreement, the Yamtuan and the Ruling Chiefs host buka puasa and terawih prayers in their Istana and Balais respectively. The announcer was late in informing guests that a cannon would be fired to mark maghrib: the blast had already caused some guests to jump. In the Balairong Seri, the tazkirah reminded us of the special rewards that God makes available for believers in the holy month, and the melodies of the guest imam from Yemen were particularly soothing.

After the formal end of the evening, some relatives stayed late. Children chased each other around the lobby and adults talked business or raved on about the tempoyak. Suddenly, Yah Rudy looked up from his phone and interjected: “a Malaysia Airlines plane has crashed in Ukraine”.

“What’s your source?”, I immediately asked, thinking it must be a hoax.

Soon, everyone’s phones started buzzing. As with all disasters that have a national or global impact – 9/11, the 2004 tsunami, MH370 – everyone will remember where they were at the time. “Malaysia is a victim of geopolitical turmoil that is happening in that area,” said our Prime Minister some hours later. Obama was already having a go at Putin before this, but even his steely language was to be outdone by the Australians. The Netherlands showed initial restraint but then went on the offensive against Russia, too. British Prime Minister David Cameron also ratcheted up the verbal attack, calling on other European countries to impose greater sanctions on Russia. Malaysia, on the other hand, was resolutely neutral from the beginning: a full independent investigation must be completed before blame is ascribed to anyone.

Rifling through readers’ comments on at least a dozen different websites, it was interesting to see how citizens responded to the stances of their leaders: in the West plenty equated the quick judgement against Russia as proof of a conspiracy, whereas at home some criticised Datuk Seri Najib for failing to join international condemnation of Putin.

As I write this however, our Prime Minister is receiving much praise – including from opposition politicians – for going down the route of quiet diplomacy: the bodies are en route to the grieving families and we obtained the (orange) black boxes, subsequently forwarded to the UK for analysis. The handover ceremony had an air of officialdom about it: the rebels calling themselves the Donetsk People’s Republic have now received more recognition than the so-called Islamic State (of Iraq and the Levant) – but this is surely a small price to pay for the opportunity to provide closure for the victims’ kin.

So far, any shred of evidence has been shrouded by scepticism and doubt: ascertaining anything approximating the truth is impossible in such a politicised environment, as existing biases make people to want to believe a particular set of accusations. For every theory invoking the deleted tweet, the alleged conversation amongst rebels and the photo of the Buk missile system, there are counter-theories – and more. In this age of technological wizardry, credence or doubt are easily fuelled by claiming that data has been manipulated. That is why on-the-ground access by investigators trusted by the international community is vital. Malaysia’s stance sounds logical and reasonable, and the very erudite Russian Ambassador to Malaysia has expressed gratitude for it. Yet, while for us, resolving the specific incident of the plane is the top priority, some of our friends in the West have been waiting for an opportunity to punish Putin for his alleged role in escalating the conflict. (Some months ago I was a guest of the Russian Embassy at a concert to celebrate their Constitution Day: as Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto was being performed a big portrait of the Russian President appeared in the background, and some ambassadors failed to suppress sniggers.) The context counts. And so the geopolitical fisticuffs will continue and as various investigations claim to reach conclusions, Malaysia may eventually be forced to take sides, too.

It is often said of leaders who struggle at home that an international incident can be a boon: history shows us how wars have been started to divert attention from domestic problems. I’m not suggesting that any leader wanted 298 innocent people to die, but already the various decisions being made by world leaders in the aftermath of our national tragedy are being seen as a turning point for Russia. For Malaysians, however, the tragedy has given us a glimpse into a kind of leadership infrequently seen – purposeful, effective and level-headed in the face of provocation – attributes that old accounts suggest was once the norm. And now that we have seen it, we will yearn for more of it.

By His Highness Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz

image

First published in The Borneo Post on 18th July 2014, Friday.

During sahur last Sunday I turned on the TV to find that the World Cup Final was still 0-0; Mario Gotze scored the all-important goal just as I finished my mango.

After the final whistle, fireworks were audible in Damansara Heights, just as the azan for the subuh prayer began. The crowd in Rio de Janeiro waving yellow-red-black flags while singing their anthem reminded me of Negeri Sembilan’s Malaysia Cup triumph in 2009 after a drought of 61 years, weeks after the Installation of their new Ruler.

The German victory inspired me to listen to Joseph Haydn’s ‘String Quartet in C (Op 76 No 3)’, including variations on the tune he composed in 1797 in honour of Francis II, the last Holy Roman Emperor and first Emperor of Austria. In 1841, Hoffmann von Fallersleben, a German poet with nationalist aspirations – the German Confederation was then a collection of over 30 sovereign monarchies and republics – set new lyrics to the same tune, beginning with ‘Deutschland, Deutschland uber alles’ (Germany, Germany above all).

This was not a yearning for German dominance over others, but an appeal to the rulers of the various sovereign states to place loyalty to a new united nation above independence for their territories – this makes the Malaysian story of federation more similar to the German, rather than the American or Australian, one. The dream of a unified Germany came true in 1871, with Wilhelm I of Prussia proclaimed as Emperor, and the diplomatic genius Otto von Bismarck as Chancellor – but it wasn’t until 1922 that Haydn’s melody with von Fallersleben’s lyrics officially became the German Reich’s national anthem. Ironically, in 1918, the melody was abandoned in its native Austrian Empire (then in union with the Kingdom of Hungary) when its monarchy was abolished in the aftermath of the defeat in World War I.

In better days, the Austro-Hungarian throne’s heir presumptive Archduke Franz Ferdinand (whose assassination triggered that war) probably heard his anthem on his visit to Johor in April 1893, alongside the one composed in 1879 for then Maharaja Abu Bakar. The Archduke wrote that at a gala dinner in his honour hosted by the Tunku Mahkota, “a rather good private orchestra of the sultan provided the musical entertainment”. He was then awarded the Darjah Kerabat Johor, an honour later bestowed on the German Kaiser’s brother Prince Henry of Prussia when he visited the sovereign sultanate in 1898.

Haydn’s composition made a comeback in republican Austria in 1929 until the Anschluss with Germany in 1938 – where they were still using the tune alongside the anthem of the Nazi Party. After World War II, West Germany reinstated Hadyn’s melody with von Fallersleben’s third stanza as its national anthem – the first stanza having been banned for its associations with Nazism (despite its pre-Nazi origins). Nonetheless, West German fans sang the first stanza by default when their squad won the World Cup in 1954, causing consternation amongst neighbours.

After the 2014 win, however, only the third stanza was audible, and referring to the anthem as ‘Deutschland, Deutschland uber alles’ today will cause offence. It is unfortunate then, that the only invocation of German history by a Malaysian politician during the World Cup was praise for Hitler, provoking a firm response by the German Ambassador here and embarrassing international headlines.

The furore died down – assisted by another woeful comment from another politician – but not before a number of comments in praise of Hitler emerged, especially in the context of recent Israeli aggression in Gaza. Here, we navigate the dangerous territory of history being cited to justify present day actions, but devoid of a wider context. For example, had Hitler not come to power, European Jews would have more likely stayed in Europe instead of escaping to Palestine and grabbing land from the grandfathers of today’s suffering Palestinians. Remember also that Hitler’s alliance with the Japanese facilitated the death of tens of thousands in Malaya, North Borneo and Sarawak.

Also at risk of oversimplification are the calls to boycott certain companies because they purportedly support Zionism. As a student in the UK, I blindly supported such calls, until my Palestinian classmate explained that in some cases, boycotts can end up hurting Palestinians even more because of their position in the supply chain: economic boycotts are only useful, he argued, if they lead to a political solution. A recent target here was McDonald’s, which issued a statement pointing out that their allegedly Jewish CEO had long left the company, and that they employ over 12,000 Malaysians. Who will more likely be negatively impacted by a boycott of GCBs and banana pies?

Sport, music, history and economics: there could hardly be a more exciting sahur.

A soupy insouciance

Posted: July 11, 2014 in Uncategorized

By His Highness Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz

image

First published in The Borneo Post on the 11th July 2014.

A few days after the Federal Territories Minister issued his ban on soup kitchens within a 2km-radius from Lot 10, I joined the children of Yayasan Chow Kit for buka puasa on my birthday. I have been a trustee since its inception, and was involved while it was still operating as Rumah Nur Salam under the auspices of Yayasan Salam Malaysia. Today YCK operates three centres: Pusat Jagaan Baitu’Amal and Pusat Aktiviti Kanak-Kanak (PAKK) for younger children and the KL Krash Pad (KLKP) for teenagers. Over the years, hundreds of kids have regularly used the various services provided by the centres – including shelter, education, counselling and rehabilitation – funded by a combination of government grants and corporate donations.

Many of the children of Yayasan Chow Kit are stateless or refugees, and encounter particular difficulties in accessing services, especially education. We have long argued that it is in everyone’s interests that these children are in school instead of on the streets – where unfortunately they can end up being involved in activities that incur social costs – but the standard response from policymakers is that non-Malaysians should not receive services paid for by Malaysians. “Publicly-funded Malaysian schools are for Malaysian children,” some parents will no doubt insist, “and I don’t want my kids sitting with refugees.”

That is why Ideas, in partnership with the Dutch NGO Young Refugee Cause, is establishing a learning centre, the Ideas Academy (www.ideasacademy.org.my), to cater for needy urban children including the stateless (this is separate from our other educational initiative, the Ideas Autism Centre). It will use the Canadian curriculum bearing in mind that many of the students may ultimately be destined for other countries, and hopefully prove beyond doubt that civil society can work effectively with the private sector to provide educational services to the most disadvantaged in society — a notion that is equally incomprehensible to the authoritarian Right as to the socialist Left, who believe that government must monopolise the education sector to ensure ‘proper values’ or ‘justice for all’ (how’s that working out, eh?).

While there are such initiatives for children, however, there are also thousands of adults who are homeless in Kuala Lumpur. As has already been related in many stories since the debacle started, these encompass a mix of people: from those who have long been living on the streets engaging in petty trade, to those who once had relatively comfortable lives but later encountered personal tragedies, deaths in the family or other misfortunes. It is to these people that soup kitchens have catered.

Soup kitchens are perhaps the ultimate symbol of civic responsibility: their funders and volunteers understand the frailties of urban life and dedicate financial resources as well as time to help those who have been its victims. But there is one aspect which trumps them all: from my observations and interactions with soup kitchen volunteers –whether here, in London or in the most impoverished parts of Detroit which I visited last year – one consistent characteristic is the dignity with which people are treated. Unlike impersonal government welfare programmes designed on the basis of statistics and maps and potential political capital, soup kitchen volunteers interact with individuals face-to-face, immerse themselves in the community and ultimately earn respect, friendship and gratitude.

Perhaps we are all being too harsh on the Federal Territories Minister. Our capital would indeed look smarter if there were no visible signs of poverty. And our tourist spots are indeed blighted by syndicates of beggars, not advertised in the Visit Malaysia Year 2014 brochures. And some of these syndicates are indeed foreign. But the one-handedness with which the new measures were announced points to a breathtaking ignorance on the part of the authorities by putting everyone in the same boat. As we have seen all too often in pronouncements of government policy, there was little prior consultation with those who are most well-versed in the topic.

I would reiterate another point about governance: it is high time that our cities are governed not by appointees of Putrajaya or state governments, but instead be given the right to directly elect executive mayors with significant responsibilities. This would create much greater local accountability on all issues directly affecting the cities. Some politicians would find such a development intolerable to their career prospects: to them I say emulate Joko Widodo, who proved himself as Mayor of Surakarta before running as Governor of Jakarta, and now he is a presidential candidate.

After the Federal Territories Minister made his announcement, one soup kitchen which operates within the banned zone approached YCK to see if we could host them. Our centres are just outside the zone, so if we can, we will!

By His Highness Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz

image

First published in The Borneo Post on 4th July 2014.

IT has emerged that a number of Malaysians have joined the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (or Syria, or al-Sham: thus either Isil or Isis, but the former avoids confusion with our friends at the Institute for Strategic and International Studies), and it is shuddering to think that compatriots would be capable of the acts that have been reported, even filmed: the interrogation and murder of truck drivers, the humiliations and summary executions of captured soldiers.

In this context it is bewildering why anyone would cite Isil fighters as an example of bravery in the face of the enemy. Why not mention the selfless Raja Aman Shah Raja Harun al-Rashid, who as captain of the third Battalion of the Federated Malay States Volunteer Force that fought the Japanese during World War II, and was ultimately executed after refusing to be released from captivity unless all his comrades were also released? Why not cite the warriors of Yamtuan Antah who, during the War of Bukit Putus in 1875, pushed the British back to the Residency in Sungei Ujong before artillery reinforcements arrived? Why not refer to the courageous heroes of all ethnic backgrounds who have received the nation’s highest award, the Seri Pahlawan Gagah Perkasa – one of the few federal honours yet to be sullied by political patronage?

We must accept that there are push and pull factors responsible for the decisions of young Malays to fly halfway around the world to take up arms. Clearly, they are disenchanted in their own country: either because of a lack of opportunities or a clash in values, they feel their lives cannot be fulfilled by what Malaysia has to offer. On the other hand, enticing them to the Levant is the promise of service to God and subsequent heavenly rewards, propelled by Isil’s masterly use of social media.

But perhaps the seed of this phenomenon lies in shocking failures in our education system. Already there are Malaysians who are growing up with entirely different values, making a unified sense of citizenship increasingly elusive. Recently I learnt that in one school, children were taught to habitually step on portraits of leaders – a rejection not just of the individuals portrayed but the entire constitutional system itself, purportedly for being insufficiently Islamic. It is no surprise that such hate-filled students are ripe for radicalisation, being then sent for further training abroad.

It is a given that such extremism should never be allowed in our schools, but there is much more to be done. It is essential that we teach our common history and elucidate the concept of shared citizenship at every stage of education. Of course, once young Malaysians enter the workforce there should ideally be meaningful opportunities for them to become fully fledged members of society contributing to economic, cultural and spiritual life, in a climate of political freedom — for the links between education, freedom, poverty and terrorism have been much discussed.

Isil has now declared itself to be ‘the’ Islamic State, complete with ‘the’ Caliph. No doubt this will attract some who believe that it is their religious duty to support ‘the Islamic State’. The lessons of history will be lost on them, for there were periods when competing Caliphates existed simultaneously: in the 10th century, the Sunni Umayyads claimed it from Cordoba [beginning with the enlightened Abd-ar-Rahman III (previously Emir) from 929 to 961], the Shia Fatimids from Cairo and the Sunni Abbasids from Baghdad. There, the great Caliph Harun al-Rashid (786 to 809) established the House of Wisdom, the epitome of his reign in which music, art, maths, medicine, astronomy and philosophy flourished, driven by the translation of earlier Greek and Chinese works – this was truly the peak of the Islamic Golden Age. In 796, he moved his court for geopolitical reasons to Ar-Raqqah, which Isil today calls its capital, and where music has already been banned. There could scarcely be a more diametrically opposite regime.

Looking at our own history, some Rulers also claimed the title of Caliph, and at their installations a particular verse of the Qur’an was intoned: “We have appointed you Caliph [vicegerent] on Earth!” Sadly, most politicians today arguing that Malaysia is a secular or Islamic state or some configuration in between have largely ignored our history (and our federal structure) in arriving at their conclusions — not merely the deliberations of the Reid Commission, but centuries before that.

But now, while Wisma Putra denounces the Malaysians who have joined terrorists in the Levant (originally from Latin, via French meaning where the sun rises), it is to the Attorney General, or the Home Ministry, or even Parliament, that we turn to see what might happen to those who effectively committed treason by fighting on behalf of a foreign power.

image

Let me tell you that with every passing year, you’re becoming the most wise and intelligent friend that I have ever known! May you continue to put out the very best in your life! Happy 32nd Birthday my friend Yang Amat Mulia Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz and Salam Ramadhan!

By Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz

image

First published in The Borneo Post on June 27, 2014, Friday

FINALLY, the greatest spectator sports event in the world has begun. Millions across the globe will be following intently as the ball traverses furiously from one half to the other across the grass. Already many eager eyes are watching for the added bonus of enjoying some of the most attractive athletes competing. Their performances will inspire enthusiasts of the beautiful game in every country, and from the great arenas we will hear the soothing civilised applause each time a point is won.

Wimbledon is back.

In the meantime we have to continue enduring some other tournament in honour of a sport which is linked to hooliganism and corruption more than any other (the latter aspect so lucidly explained by English comedian John Oliver in a widely shared video on YouTube), though thankfully the time difference from Brazil is such that tennis matches are more likely to survive instead of being rudely called out as was the case during the South Africa World Cup four years ago.

Despite my bias in sports, I do concede that more Malaysians will watch the World Cup than the Wimbledon Championships, and it has resulted in some interesting phenomena. Because Malaysia aren’t (yes “aren’t”: it seems that only football teams are referred to using the collective plural, probably due to British usage adopted with the popularity of the English Premier League) in the World Cup, you get the same level of fanaticism that we see expressed for league or state teams, but attached to foreign national teams instead. Except it is worse: because the World Cup is a relatively rare event, people are more ostentatious about declaring their support by wearing the appropriate jerseys.

I was in a lift the other day and two strangers started commiserating with each other because they were both visibly fans of Spain. They looked at me as if inviting me to contribute something to the discussion: I thought of saying something about the legacy of Juan Carlos I (of whom Rafael Nadal has expressed effusive opinions) instead, but luckily the door opened to enable my exit. (I’m going to walk around with my Roger Federer hat throughout Wimbledon and see if any strangers commiserate with me if he doesn’t do well enough to obtain his 18th Grand Slam victory.)

And besides my bias, I do understand the higher purposes that football can serve. I’m not referring to the fact that so far it is only a victory in football that has triggered a federal holiday (after Malaysia won the Asean Football Federation Suzuki Cup in 2010) — but rather, the links between football and Merdeka.

The first president of Football Association of Malaya (FAM) was Andrew Caldecott (the District Officer of Jelebu who composed the Negeri Sembilan state anthem, and later the Governor of Hong Kong and Ceylon), but the first local president was Tunku Abdul Rahman. He was the driving force behind a new stadium for the game, but before any football game was played there, it served as the venue for the Proclamation of Merdeka. During his premiership of the country he made frequent reference to the importance of sport in general but football in particular, saying “in keeping up with the spirit of Merdeka we must wipe out racial discrimination and through football help to build a united nation”.

Team fanaticism aside, in our divisive times not even football is sufficient to universally unite people across ethnicities and religions. In the past there were objections to offensive images or logos on jerseys, but now even the sport itself is deemed by some to be in contravention of their religious beliefs. There were also ugly overtones in discussions about our national badminton heroes on account of their ethnic background. If we can’t get our country to unite over sport — historically probably the most successful catalyst of unity as observed by our first Prime Minister — then the fractures running through our country are deep indeed.

In the meantime, thankfully there are still many efforts to ensure that sport remains a tool for national unity: not just the various programmes run by the government and private sector in getting young people to play more sport, but through cultural initiatives as well — such as the recent announcement of another season of ‘SuperMokh — The Musical’.

Amidst the World Cup fever someone managed to unearth headlines from 1999 declaring FAM’s target for Malaysia to be in the World Cup in 2014. We read that now and chuckle, deriding ourselves for being so optimistic. But the real tragedy is that we could unearth so many lofty ambitions from our past and realise the extent to which we are still yearning to achieve our potential.

Chat  —  Posted: July 4, 2014 in Life, South East Asia

By His Highness Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz

image

First published in The Borneo Post and The Malay Mail on the Friday 13th June 2014.

The thing I enjoy the most, across all the organisations I’m affiliated with, is meeting young Malaysians. At these interactions, I discover what the next generation know about our nation’s history and what they think of their prospects in this future.

Though most of these meetings happen in the Klang Valley, I’ve also had memorable conversations in Penang, Perak, Melaka, Johor, Sarawak and Negeri Sembilan. Sometimes, I finish dialogue sessions with a sense of dismay – the kids did not ask relevant questions, were excessively shy or deferential, or were very set in their ways with no attempt (and no incentive) to think about the world outside their geographical, ethnic, cultural or religious borders. I depart sad about the future and more determined to support changes in educational policy or curricula to foster critical thinking, competition and empathy. Sometimes, however, I leave a school or university with a spring in my step, because the students were so incisive and ambitious, yet still humble, and I drive away in the hope that our institutions will one day be filled by their adult versions.

Any event involving music, however, always leaves me optimistic about what young Malaysians can achieve. After I worked on the Negeri Sembilan State Anthem Project in 2009, I was surprised to be invited to play at concerts (at UKM and with TKC), to be patron of musical organisations and even to spend a day teaching music during TFM Week. I’ve lost track of the number of school performances I’ve watched, and some of them are stunning in their execution: after ‘The Wedding Singer’ at Cempaka Cheras last month I said they could rival Istana Budaya or KLPAC. At the very top level, I’ve met Malaysians in the Vienna Boys’ Choir and seen Tengku Ahmad Irfan cast his spells at the piano. Of course, it’s also a joy to see young people play traditional instruments such as the caklempong and serunai at the Istana too.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve had the pleasure of working with the children of the Arioso Sinfonia: their mentor (and ‘big sister’ figure) Angel Lee had asked me to accompany them at one of the monthly Sunday matinees at the Royale Bintang Resort in Seremban. Many of the children at her school are from single-parent or low-income families: it’s her mission to equip the kids with a skill which will help them derive an income, even if they don’t end up becoming professional musicians – though I imagine several of them will, having already won so many awards.

The Royale Matinee Concerts, an initiative of Angel’s in partnership with the hotel, have already done much to encourage more Seremban musicians to emerge from their shell, but my performance there was a prelude to a bigger event that she had organised: the second Euroasia Youth Music Festival, of which I was patron.

This week-long festival took place at the Seri Pacific hotel in Kuala Lumpur, attracting 32 young pianists and string players for master classes with four outstanding French virtuosi. I sat in some of the lessons, witnessing how methods and passions were transferred from teacher to pupil. The teachers were routinely amazed at how much progress was made, not just in terms of technique but also emotional interpretation. The jurors, headed by National Symphony Orchestra conductor Mustafa Fuzer Nawi and concert pianist Loo Bang Hean, concurred as they awarded prizes on the last day.

The ‘Europe and Asia’ theme was not just limited to the people, but extended to the repertoire as well. The faculty concert included Ravel’s ‘Piano Trio in A Minor’, whose second movement, ‘Pantoum’, is based on the Malay poetic form of pantun. The opening concert included a piece by Debussy, who was famously enamoured by the gamelan, while the gala concert included two Malay pieces arranged for orchestra. Cultural exchange has mutually enriched societies for centuries, and there was never a mythical ‘Golden Age’ of isolated cultural purity as some might wish to think.

As I sat down to play Datuk Johari Salleh’s ‘Selamat Pergi Pahlawanku’, the students who I had been rehearsing with whispered “Good luck Tunku”: this was the culmination of my musical interlude. I fumbled a bar of fiendish semiquavers, but this was only to keep the audience alert.

At the closing dinner, I felt sadness percolate the room. Neither our French guests nor the children wanted the week to end. Everyone had been immeasurably enriched, and I was lucky to have received some of that enrichment. If only all Malaysian children across every academic discipline and extra-curricular activity could benefit from such experiences: we could all walk with greater spring in our steps.